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What Elementary School Kids Should Know About Sex

When the email came from my kindergartner's school saying that they were about to start talking about personal body safety, I realized I might be behind the curve on talking to my kids about sex. I asked Jennifer Wiessner, Certified Sex Therapist and educator on Raising Sexually Healthy Children, how to get started.

Should parents take the initiative to teach young children about sex, or should we wait until they ask questions?

There is a risk in waiting; many children are just not question-askers. Other kids may have sensed discomfort or outright avoidance and they hesitate to ask the questions. It is best to be aware of what is age-appropriate knowledge for them to have. If you are behind, you can be sure some other child will be happy to share what they know with your child, so stay one step ahead of the media and the playground.

If you wait, you also lose the opportunity to share the one thing only you can share with your children: your values about sexuality.

RELATED: Your Burning Questions About Kids, Sex and Bodies

Where should parents start when we're educating their kids about bodies, sex and love?

Sexuality education can start at the time they are born. As infants, our children observe the way we hold them, touch them and diaper them; it shows them they are loved and their bodies are valuable. The way we nurture our children's curiosity about their bodies, and how we positively react and respond to their curiosity, encourage and strengthen healthy sexuality.

OK. So what should elementary school-aged kids know about sex?

Having these conversations ... allows you to be your child's source of knowledge instead of their peers, who can be a great source of misinformation.

The National Sexuality Education Standards Core Content and Skills suggests that by age 5, kids have a basic understanding of their bodies and know their bodies are their own. They should understand boundaries around touch and know that it takes a man and a woman to create a baby that grows in the woman's uterus (more details and ways to create a baby can come later).

By age 8, children should understand that people are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. Again, the finer details can come later. They also need to know that all living things reproduce. They should know the proper names for all body parts and understand that there are different types of family structures. Having these conversations with your kids at a young age and slowly building on the information allows you to be your child's source of knowledge instead of their peers, who can be a great source of misinformation.

By the end of fifth grade, students should understand human reproduction and the emotional and physical processes of puberty—it's only fair since it's happening to them! They should know how HIV/STI's are transmitted, and they should understand sexual orientation and what makes up a healthy relationship.

Your own family will be where the foundation is laid for your child's understanding of relationships, including romantic relationships. When presented at the developmentally appropriate time, in a matter-of-fact, honest manner, talking about these topics can be little different than talking about current events!

How can we complement whatever sex education our kids get in school?

To best support what fifth-graders generally receive, we need to start much earlier. Short, developmentally appropriate discussions about bodies, boundaries, human reproduction, feelings, how to be curious about their bodies and keep them safe are the best way to lay the foundation for healthy sexuality. Robie Harris' books are excellent and fun resources for developmentally appropriate information on sexuality. Each book is written for an age group: "It's Not the Stork" (4-6 years), "It's So Amazing" (7+) and "It's Perfectly Normal" (10+).

Since many states begin implementing sex ed in public schools in fourth or fifth grade, it's beneficial to connect with your school ahead of that year to see what will be taught. Then you can prepare yourself and your child and answer any questions they may have prior to the school initiation.

Be aware that in many schools the curriculum is not taught by a sex ed professional—or even someone who wants the task. In some schools a teacher can be chosen to teach the program. Your values are the one thing only you can give your children and if one of those values is a healthy sense of sexual self, teach your children before their peers, media and the Internet do.

When should we start talking to our daughters about menstruation? What about our sons?

I recommend teaching both boys and girls ... This can create an appreciation for all bodies.

If you want less anxiety for yourself and your daughter, stay at least one developmental step ahead of her. I recommend teaching both boys and girls about their bodies as well as the processes going on with the other gender. This can create an appreciation for all bodies and empathy for the issues boys and girls go through. Females can start their periods as young as 9. Although most girls start later, it's good to stay ahead of the game so she can be prepared.

If you are a mother raising a daughter, she likely has a front row seat to the process of menstruation. This is a great opportunity to scaffold information from the time she is very young until she begins menstruating. I still fondly remember my son at age 5 holding a tampon and asking me, "Mama, what is this?" I explained in a basic way what menstruation is and that a tampon "holds back" the blood that my body discards monthly when there is not a baby in my uterus so it doesn't stain my underwear. He looked at me curiously and said, in a very Bob the Builder way "Oh, so it's like a barricade." To this day my sons still call tampons barricades!

How do we talk about "stranger danger" or "inappropriate touch" without scaring our kids?

Most child exploitation involves someone the child knows. Because of this, it is more important to teach our children about personal safety skills and safe touch. I prefer the "safety" approach versus the "danger" approach as it can create unnecessary anxiety and fear in your child.

You can teach your child from a young age how to use skills to stay safe. For example, a good rule for children age 4 and up is to check in with a parent or caregiver before talking to or going somewhere with someone they do not know. You can practice this at a park with your child. For example: "If you are on the swings and that ice cream salesperson asks you to come over for a free ice cream, what would you do?" You can help tweak their answer if it isn't quite on the mark. This is also applicable when at home regarding answering the door or phone or logging on to the computer.

RELATED: How to Talk to Your Tweens About Sex

Since most people your children will encounter in their expanding worlds are "strangers" (grocery store, park, mall, parking lot), it's important for children to understand they can stay safe around strangers if they follow the family safety rules you share with them so as not to create anxiety. Normalize it.

Photo via Twenty20/Jessica

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